Copyright © 2002 John Zipperer unless indicated otherwise.
(05/01/02) Handling collaboration in a way that should be more intuitive and more productive for users is an idea that should cause corporate ears to perk up. Houston-based Advanced Reality Inc. is making the case for its data-centric approach to handling collaboration, in which it adapts existing applications to make them collaborative, and does the collaboration on the data level, thus freeing it up to be used by other applications that may need the same data.
Advanced Reality launched its Presence-AR Adapter for Microsoft Excel this spring, the first salvo in its attack on more complicated collaborative platforms that require users to work in a separate collaboration application. A software development kit (SDK) will be released later this year, and a PowerPoint version of the Adapter is also planned. "If we can make existing applications collaborative without modifying the code within, it's only logical that new applications can be made collaborative much more easily than they ever could before," says Linda Spain, the company's president and CEO. "So our product can enhance the development of any new products anyone is making for the market."
This data-centric approach uses the data representation, the application, and then the adapter to communicate between the two. Presence-AR is Java-based, and it runs on a Java Virtual Machine. Able to work with structured data and fairly unstructured data (such as the information used in medical imaging), Advanced Reality's technology is also being used to make custom applications for some larger companies; CAD is one market in particular that the company is eyeing.
The origins of the company were at Rice University, which is just down the street from the company's current Houston offices. While studying computer science at Rice founders Derek Ruths (now CTO) and Jeff Hoye (now chief architect), were doing genome mapping and wanted collaboration between the advanced applications they were using. They came up with the concept of a software platform that would make those applications and any other applications collaborative. With a grant from Rice, they went off and created the product; Advanced Reality was created to commercialize it.
"Innovation in technology has always come from garages," says Ruths. "This one just happened to be parked over at Rice University." They brought in another Rice alum, Spain, to help raise money, and she then assumed her presidency and CEO titles in September of 2000.
Angel funded, Advanced Reality recently raised $1.8 million, and is looking at a B-round later this year. With just 16 employees of its own, it is targeting companies with more than 3,000 or 4,000 employees.
(05/01/02) Technology business people are familiar with many promises that have been slow to come about. One of the best-known is voice over IP (VoIP), because it has such obvious benefits both for inter- and intra-business usage as well as for consumers. Benefits included lower costs, one platform for voice- and data, and value-added services thrown in for flat fees.
But on the way to the realization of these promises, inadequate broadband access and subpar quality hurt its reputation. Today, long after many of us expected to be using IP telephony on a daily basis, the phones and background technology are indeed being marketed, and it's not unusual to have a VoIP vendor exclaim late in a phone conversation that the entire conversation has taken place over its VoIP phone or using its software. Their point is obvious: This stuff is in use, and its quality is indistinguishable from traditional phone service.
Steve Guthrie is director of marketing for Pingtel Corp., which makes a Java-based VoIP telephone and the management platform that enterprises run to support it. He says we're now in the fourth generation of VoIP; the first was the background hauling by carriers of voice traffic over the public Internet. The second generation was represented by Net2Phone and similar products, which tried to popularize the PC as the cheaper alternative to traditional phones for long distance.
"Because those calls were being placed from a PC over the public Net, two things happened," says Guthrie. "First, Windows is not a real-time operating system, and it does not do real-time functions like voice well, so there was latency in the phone calls. The second thing that happened is that because these packets were shipped over the public Internet, packets were getting dropped left and right. People started to associate VoIP with bad service." He says there followed a third generation, in which there was a smart black box connected to the phones, which were dumb devices. He not surprisingly puts his company at the vanguard of what he calls the fourth generation, in which the phone device is the smart part.
"For the first 125 years of telephony, phones didn't really do much more for users than they did for Bell and Watson," says Guthrie. Now, "we're looking at Java-enabled IP phones that are in fact intelligent clients. The intelligence in my phone allows me to have a peer-to-peer relationship with another intelligent phone." This smart phone lets his company fold in services like unified messaging [see "Messages from Anywhere," April 2002, p. 50], call filtering, personalized rings based on the caller ID, voice-activated dialing, and more.
Changing of the Guard
SIP has lots of fans, but it isn't the only player on the field. As its name suggests, Telco Systems' history is in selling voice equipment to carriers. Today, it also makes network edge and IP switching products. Carriers have huge legacy systems, and the integration of new products with different standards or needs takes a long time. That's why Telco provides support for a number of standards, including H.323, MGCP, and SIP.
One driver within companies for adoption of VoIP is that downsizing of staffs has led to different people making the choices. "The data people tend to be the people taking over the voice side of the business, and they like to keep the voice in something they understand, which is voice over the Internet," says Michael Hall, global account executive for Telco.
"Lots of people are taking an interest in voice over IP," says Guthrie. "We were at the VoiceCon conference recently, and one of the analysts said, 'I know this isn't grammatically correct, but you can't not do this, because if you, Mr. Telecom Director, don't start testing some kind of voice over IP in your enterprise, some IT guy will.'" He also sees the turf battle between the telecom and IT people within enterprises over who owns voice, noting that despite the pull of power in the direction of the IT data folks, "we'll have telecom managers and telecom professionals for a few more years."
The change is finally happening, just not at the pace once envisioned. "That whole trend of moving to IP is certainly not as fast as people would have expected even a year or two years ago," says Hall. "The world is moving to IP, and very rapidly. But things are never going to be as quick as they were predicted in the past.".
(05/01/02) Not every customer wants to hear that a solutions provider can deliver the moon. In fact, promises of being able to do everything can do more than just create skepticism; it can become a reason not to use a particular company's offerings.
That was the case when Publishers Clearing House was looking for a hosting provider. A lot of service providers told the subscriptions-and-sweepstakes company that they could handle any platform available. Digex specified a few platforms that it supported, and that helped clinch the deal. Jon Zerden, director of Internet technology for Publishers Clearing House, says he's suspicious of providers that implicitly claim they have the necessary expertise to handle any and all platforms. What his company wanted and got was a solution to one aspect of its business, not the whole thing.
Digex's director of business development and strategy, Steve Keifer, says customers should look behind the promises to see what meeting them would require and whether that is something they want to put up with. "The reason a lot of these providers are able to say 'yes' to everything is because they have a network of subcontractors, so you're never sure who's providing the service," he says.
That may make things clear as mud for the company looking to outsource parts of its network. After all, hasn't the rule been to find someone who can handle as much as possible? One throat to choke and all? Different service providers have different answers, but they are all saying that they have evolved and will continue to evolve to meet their customers' needs. In the acronym-heavy world of service provision, managed-service providers (MSPs), managed security services providers (MSSPs), ISPs, and ASPslet's just call them xSPscare less about their acronym and more about providing whatever service is needed by their hungry customers. Beyond that, they are looking increasingly to lead customers to new technologies, reversing the dynamic of the relationship in at least that one aspect.
Theory of Evolution
Service providers weren't the only ones to change; their customers did, too. BMC Softwarewhich sells to service providers such products as its hosted management service SiteAngel and its performance and availability monitoring solution GuardianAngelhas to keep on top of what its customers, the service providers, need.
That's been a moving target, to say the least. "In 1999, I was part of our corporate development team, and we were looking at the new ASP model and trying to figure out what it was going to mean," says Mary Nugent, BMC's vice president and general manager of service provider solutions. She says management of performance availability was something that BMC identified early on as a critical factor that providers needed.
"Since the market has cooled down, a lot of the service providersthe early ones, the missionarieshave failed," says Nugent. "My theory is that the ASP model was very interesting to companies not really because they wanted to get the application on a subscription basis but more because they wanted to outsource the complexity of the application. Some of those service providers didn't focus on service management, so they lost customers or didn't get funded."
Nugent says she first thought that the real end user of service providers was going to be small- and medium-size enterprises that couldn't afford the IT talent and complexity. "We still think in the long run, the notion of a service provider for the enterprise is going to come out of the telecom companies and the global solutions providers like EDS," says Nugent. It turned out that the larger enterprises ponied up for service-provider relationships. "What I found out is that there's a trust factorthat the people who aren't really sophisticated in IT aren't quite ready to trust yet," she says. "But the Tier 1, Tier 2, Fortune 500 companies understand outsourcing and were very willing to try it out and test the waters in certain noncritical areas."
In fact, she says BMC was surprised at the level of interest in its SiteAngel product from enterprises. What emerges is a new model that harks back to the old model she first thought would emerge, but is, of course, radically different. "We used to think of service providers as an independent third party offering service to an enterprise," she says. "What we're finding is that enterprises adopted this model, and they're going to be the service provider and they're going to charge their own business units." So her original vision of the long-term play for service providers could still come to be, with customers primarily being the small and mid-size enterprises. She says she is already seeing some enterprises making service-provider offerings to their smaller and mid-size partners and suppliers.
Chicago-based divine, inc., which has been filling out its suite of enterprise software offerings, also has managed services offerings ranging from managed hosting to applications infrastructure management. According to divine chairman and CEO Andrew "Flip" Filipowski, the modern extended enterprise needs reliable delivery of its managed services and solutions; it needs software that is unique to the enterprise, and that means taking into account its need for collaboration, Web services, and other emerging technologies. So what started out as an industry to handle the outsourcing of customer-facing Web sites has grown into a broad movement for outsourcing many employee-facing applications and services.
Keifer adds to that list the increasing realization that something as simple as e-mail is a mission-critical application, so the clustering of Microsoft Exchange over multiple servers is being considered more. Also, companies are increasingly looking to outsource messaging and portals.
Sources of Inspiration
Sprint's E|Solutions tries to be proactive through its IT consulting department, where it tries "to deliver a kind of vision," says Patrick O'Malley, president of Sprint Business. "We articulate where they are right now and where they want to go, and help them develop a strategic roadmap to get there."
Digex's Keifer also says the flow of suggestions has changed. "We have amassed one of the industry's best R&D teams, and a pretty large product marketing organization," he boasts. "We've done a pretty good job of turning that around, so that nine times out of ten, we're the ones going in and educating the customer on what technology's next."
What customers are demanding with their services (new and old) is that more attention be paid to their service-level agreements (SLAs). Keifer says that attention in SLAs has long been paid to issues of server uptime; now, he says, customers are very concerned about response time by the service provider to any and all problems.
Chroniger of Dimension Data agrees, noting, "Customers want very specific SLAsvery specific expectation-setting methodology and best practices."
As everyoneservice pro-viders and their customersgets used to the rapidly changing quality of their relationship, the common thread that observers may detect is that there will be that relationship. Service providers, whether hosting servers or managing security or handling wireless buildout or planning for Web services, are determined not to go away.
"I think the attitude toward partnerships, outsourcing, and not having to do everything yourself, is something that's systemic now," says O'Malley. "If there's anything we've learned from the downturn, it's that you have really got to be efficient and effective, and you've got to utilize the resources of the companies you trust as partners."